March 2008


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Anyone who appreciated the skills that the crew from Revenge of the Nerds had beyond the football and dating fields knows that geeks always had a cool quotient, albeit one that was very covert in the 1980s. That characters like Lamar have since gone on to play a huge role in defining our culture’s assumptions and aspirations regarding what is currently cool is something of a table-turning victory celebration: injecting archetypes into the realm of stereotypes, it’s now common practice to credit nerds with everything that’s evolved in the hip intersections between society and technology since their boners first saluted the Commodore 64. (See: Bill Gates).

Today’s matrix of technology, interactive, design, strategy, research, interactive, innovation etc. is brimming with folks who probably didn’t score touchdowns and date cheerleaders in high school. Many of them – like the former and/or practicing DJs, rave promoters, comic artists, font freaks, and connoisseurs of tea, wine and chocolate who populate this realm and generally stand united against the alpha-male jock villains of 80’s cinema – have some degree of coolness under their belt. Some of them are even designing the next application, device, site or campaign you will think is cool.

As an anthropologist, that interests me. My apologies in advance for raising the specter of such an over-haunted theme, but I have to wonder if this professional matrix has become so enraptured by its own culture of cool that it has spawned an ethnocentricity that’s now reaching full maturity.

Case in point #1: I’ve recently been involved with an industrial designer in a single volley debate over the value (or meaning?) or ‘ordinariness’ on Idris’ blog. I understand that few, if any, designers strive for the ordinary; however, having done the ethnography, I am very familiar with those ‘consumers’ who prefer, if not thrive on, the ordinary.

Case in point #2: a recent posting on Dino’s blog led me to a Slide Share by Paul Isakson. Two of the slides read: “Great. But my product isn’t cool. What can I do?” The answer – and its simplicity isn’t that surprising considering Paul is one of those hailing the impending (if not accompli) ‘death of advertising’ – is “Well, frankly you’re screwed.”

I’m not so sure – about being screwed or about what ordinary is. Designers chasing the next iWhatever can’t be faulted for wanting to create the next cool thing. But who decides what cool is? And when did ordinary get set in stone?

The many on-screen humiliations suffered by the Lamars of pop culture served to dramatize our rooting for the underdog and the stark demographic reality that most of those watching are more like the pocket protector crew than the alpha-male jock villains of 80’s cinema. And while it’s far sexier to conduct ethnographies on the cool, I’d just like to stick up for the voice of those poor jocks and cheerleaders who might be forgotten as they shop for tube socks, bath mats, paper towel and all those other products that have slipped through the cracks of cool. Roland Barthes would not be pleased with this exnomination of the nerds.

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Jennifer Wells’ article in The Globe & Mail’s Report on Business section (“Advertising’s Holy Grail,” Saturday March 15) illustrates how truly little of a shit some marketers and advertisers give about consumers as human beings – especially those companies who think they’ve taken a major leap into new strategic space by replacing focus groups for neuromarketing. As Wells points out, measuring brain waves or blood flows to determine responses to an ad’s music, imagery, brand messaging etc. isn’t exactly a spring chicken methodology. But, as the thrust of her article, the announcement 4 weeks ago that Nielsen Co. “had made what it called a ‘strategic investment’ in a theretofore unheard of California company called NeuroFocus’,” it looks like the chicken’s got new gravy.

Other firms are similarly working this new gravy, er, methodology. Along with Neilsen, Wells points out that ESPN, Virgin Mobile USA and Starcom MediaVest (and there’s far more to boot) have all recently cut cheques to them to mine the deepest recesses of the consumer mind. But are they? Really?

Positioning your services as an alternative to focus groups? Isn’t that like cancer calling the plague black? I’m all for kids getting $20 to taste a chocolate bar or two and tell Cadbury’s it’s shit, but focus groups haven’t been a ‘best practice’ for any firm with a brain worth scanning since Puma-wearing 20-somethings early-adopted that phrase, like, whenever. Tsk tsk to Jennifer Wells (if she did) or NeuroFocus (if they did) for setting the best practice bar so low at focus groups. Like, who can’t jump that high?

This approach to probing the ‘consumer mind’ (literally) for deep insights will fly, for a time, because most of the 1.0 marketing and advertising crowd are quantitative junkies so unsure of their product and promotion (and, I guess, their people) that they’ll only place their bets once the Vegas odds are sold to them in their favour. They’ll pay for the service because the companies that offer it boast a more accurate or detailed or nuanced read with – get this – fewer test subjects. Yes, it saves money and it’s quicker than focus groups! But it still seems focus groupy, just with a big discount coupon, wires on heads and cool EEG readouts to throw into a Power Point deck.

Remember brain wavers that claimed they could crack the emotion & meaning of music or peer into the predator’s mind as he watched porno in jail?

How many times a man farts after eating chicken tikka doesn’t tell you anything about how much or where, why, when and with whom – never mind the stories he might regale you with from his restaurant experiences or childhood memories of the family tandoor as young boy in the Punjab – he is socially, culturally, personally, emotionally or gastronomically engaged with and by chicken tikka.

I guess what really irks me is that some companies or brands and their research lackies would even think of hooking lab consumers up to wires. What’s next? Rubbing shampoo into kids’ eyes to see how much they cry?

Or maybe it’s the title of Wells’ article. I guess she’s a fan of the Dan Brown/Tom Hanks version. Sorry, though, I’m still not convinced the secrets can be read through wires. You won’t find them in the blood or, for that matter, the brain as mechanism. And even if you could, one brain does not make a market, a community or a culture.

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I like smart people, especially people who are smarter than me. Not smarter than me in terms of ties and slacks, but smarter (not that I’ve got some quantitative stick in my pocket) than me in that sense of, when you read their writing or hear them speaking, you feel like drowning your PhD in a case of Beck’s. Sometimes it happens when I watch a great TV show (The Wire, Kalifornication, that hidden motel room show) or read a great book (Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Norman Stolzoff’s Wake The Town, anything by Victor Turner). I’m writing this ode to the wise because, recently (and since being hired on by two dudes who have me deep in Bremen’s finest), I signed up for Twitter. Put my non-early adopter status down to a flair for the social reluctance of many anthropologists (sometimes we get so hooked on other’s sociality that we ignore our own. Don’t expect the regular updates on What I’m Doing). In doing so (thanks, again, to a brother) I came across the new fact that Mark Ury has a blog. Check it here. Mark works as an Experience Architect at Blast Radius in Toronto. I had the pleasure to work in a room with him last year for two days. I hope some of his mojo rubbed off on me, because he is, for lack of accoladed wording, smart. (He can probably do Ikea furniture with his eyes closed). Just read his posting on why Apple is successful. And no, it’s not design. In scrolling through Mark’s blogroll I was reminded to catch up on postings by Grant McCracken. I hope his middle-ageness doesn’t flinch in referring to him as one of the granddaddies of anthropology for business (?, I flinch at ‘consumer anthropology’), but there’s rarely a post that goes by in his musings on work, ethnography etc. that doesn’t have those of us less jet-setting-than-he looking to get some game. Needless to say, he’s smart – and his recent post aimed at ethnographic pretenders must have stung many.

That’s all, that’s it. Just looking to big up the smart.

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Even when it’s anthropology for commercial/business purposes, let’s not call ‘them’ subjects, case studies, consumers, users or – worse yet – cohorts. As ethnography, design, strategy and innovation become more public about the ever-ripening fruits of their increased collaboration, let’s hear it for….people. I’m nearing the middle phase in a series of cross-Canada ethnographic home visits and I have yet to sit at the kitchen table of a subject, case study, consumer, user or cohort. In Toronto they’re men, women and children. In Montreal they’re men, women and children. And unless something’s gone awry that I missed on the news, I expect they’ll be men, women and children in Vancouver, Calgary and the Maritimes.

Sound like a picky point? It’s not. Any organization that is working (or hoping to) beyond ‘the box’ should be talking their walk which, I guess, is my way of saying that when the research firm you’ve contracted to conduct that qualitative study throws up a Power Point on the subjects, case studies, consumers, users and cohorts they’ve ‘sampled’ it might be time to cut your losses and run.

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It has been three weeks since I started at Idea Couture and, not surprisingly three weeks since LinkedIn and I started arguing about whether or not we need counseling. She says we do, complaining that I don’t pay enough attention to her anymore. That’s not entirely true. I do spend some quality time with her once a day, at least on weekdays.

But she’s changed. Week after week it seems as if she’s showing a new side, one that surprises me (and not in a unanimously great way). Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I can see it on her face: one day it’s ‘who checked your profile’ and ‘your name came up on x-amount of searches’ on the left, a couple of days later it’s on the right; one day a pop-up mysteriously appears (and stays, thus far) asking me what I’m up to right now (like I can break my NDA pre-nup, right?); then, all of a sudden, I don’t have to peek into her contacts to find out who has just linked up because it’s right there, in my face; and don’t even talk to me about the new man in her life last week, boldly asking me from a questioning face that’s never been present in our personal space about how we can encourage more students to enrol in science and technology courses. Like that’s what he’s really interested in!

I have to admit, though, that I, too, have changed. Or maybe it’s that the relationship has changed. It’s not that I don’t need her any more. I love LinkedIn. I can’t quite keep up with how she keeps changing her looks week after week, but it’s what’s inside that counts, right? I fell in love with that the very day that my brother introduced me to her in the spring. Yeah, I knew she’d been around the block for a few years before our first days together but, after refusing so many introductions to MySpace and realizing that I just didn’t have the kind of commitment (and interest) it would take to make it work with Facebook, that didn’t matter. Because at that moment in my life I knew LinkedIn was the one for me. And so I spent hours with her that first week, courting her with carefully crafted words that, I hoped, would forever enamour her to me. But sometimes forever isn’t, well, forever.

I do have to thank her for getting me in the door at a number of places where I met some interesting people (and some people who wore slacks, worked in cubicles and got there via HR) who talked about what we could do together. In the end, however, it was a life pre-her that came knocking, talked to me about my passions, skills and insights fitting into a new business model, gave me a desk (and a phone, and a light, and a filing cabinet, and more!) and set me off on a cross-Canada road trip to learn about something that my pre-nup demands I keep quiet. In part, I credit the energy I put into my relationship with her for creating the karmic powers that led me to where I am now.

Looking back I realize that, yes, I used her. But hasn’t everybody? It’s not like it’s over, though. People change. Jobs change. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, we rediscover that first spark that set us (okay, me) on fire. If we do, I hope it leads to something that’s as exciting as the one I’m in now, a place in my life that conjures the passion of those first few days in the warm embrace of LinkedIn.

Until then, I am introducing a close girlfriend to her in hopes that, together, they can make the magic happen. And another girlfriend will soon be revisiting her to, hopefully, make up in ways that will similarly transform a professional situation. Best of luck to all three.

No photo to post, screen shot to rip or even a moshi moshi from this glimmer of innovation and peek into the sort of interaction and/or interface that might soon be – check her!

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Talking with a monster software company back in December I learned that one of their genius ideas to help push their idea lab into the future and sell their MP3 player in the present was to consult on the regular with major record label execs about – get this – how music consumers would be consuming music in the future. Now, anyone who knows anything about the record industry knows that the record industry doesn’t really know anything about the record industry anymore. Well, not exactly – but if sales of CDs and the general state of panic in that financial realm are indication, you get the picture. Seth Godin has posted a PDF on his blog of a recent talk he gave to some music execs about the one thing that most, if not all, of them lack: innovation. That they’ve been scared for a while is fact. Now that the drums have stopped beating maybe the major labels are finally going to prepare for the arrival of what Godin calls the ‘tribe’.

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Posted for about two months now, if you haven’t seen Bill Murray Looms Large (aka The Man Who Thought He Was Bill Murray) it’s a Flash animation that must be seen. As one of my brothers (who tipped me off to it) pointed out, the dialogue indicators are a brilliant way to represent talk, but it’s the chilling, almost transcendent moment of numinosity (in part courtesy of scenes from The Fountain, in part courtesy of the fact that Bill Murray is as close to the divine as it gets in Hollywood) that makes this so special. The photo above, from Stripes, has no connection with the piece. I just needed an image to bait you and, along with The Razor’s Edge, it’s a classic.

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If you’re in your mid to late 30s (or beyond) and were born and/or raised in North America, chances are you spent a good portion of your childhood in the Cleaver house. A la Beaver, you would come home from school every day and there would be Mom (even you didn’t think of her as June), waiting eagerly for your return, hoping you didn’t get your head stuck between fence posts, cookies in hand, greeting you at the front door. Once inside you’d find that Dad (no, not Ward) had come home early and was reading the newspaper in the living room. And, yes, he was still wearing his ‘slacks’.

That ‘times have changed’ is as much an acknowledgement of what is continually so as it is of my age (and what was on TV when I was a kid). One thing that’s changed is that fewer, if any, young kids actually watch Leave It To Beaver. I haven’t checked but, if the Hilarious House of Frightenstein is any indication, it must be airing on one of those retro channels. I might say that my own daughter, who spends much of her time growing up in the White House with Corey, at Hannah Montana’s place, and in the Tipton hotel with Zack & Cody, has yet to ‘discover’ the aesthetic pleasure of the black & white era. But the fact is that, unless she becomes something of a semi-academic film buff in her later years, I’m not sure that she or any of her contemporaries ever will. The momentum that pop culture has gathered in the recent years has new content rolling out so quickly that, like VCRs and land lines, I wonder if black & white has an obsolescence associated with it. (That typed as she runs around town with the Mayor collecting goodies in Wii Sims.)

Another thing that’s changed is June and Ward’s space – the house – and their time and place in it and outside of it. Few Junes are at home baking cookies after school. More Wards get RSS. And their kids? That’s where the real change is going down. Or, at least, where it is being most registered.

According to “Changes in American children’s time: 1981 – 1997,” a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research survey from a decade ago, time and place is not what it once was. Among the findings in that 16-year period, the study noted a 33% drop in family dinners, a reduction in kids’ free time by almost 12 hours per week (9 of them being play time which, if you know anything, is more valuable than an entire public school career’s worth of math class), a reduction of 50% in their unstructured outdoor activities (add that the math too), a doubling of structured sports activities to 5.5 hours per week, an increase in non-sporty kids hanging around their siblings’ sidelines, and a 50% increase in homework.

There’s a chance that the homework stat has changed, considering how study after study has shown that its anxiety-inducing effects on young students and their families is totally counterproductive to a positive school experience. Others might have too. I don’t know. I do know that there are similar time & space altering forces at work on the parents of those kids and, for that matter, on working non-parents. Anyone who doubts that based on their own corner-of-the-world experience need only consider the extent to which we, as actors in pop culture, attempt to control that time & space by watching others renovate their homes, design the perfect Greco-Roman bathroom, reorganize their closets, cook the perfect 5-minute meal and, if work happens to cut into the TV schedule of those who still watch it, TiVo it all or rip torrents for the whole week.

To get to my point: the time & space of the home has changed over the years. The first serious ‘modern’ morphing occurred with major labor shifts in the 1850s and, once again, with women entering the WW2 workforce. In each instance there was an historical response to these social changes in household performances of time and space through memory: a boom in photography, a ‘focus’ on youth photography, an interest in lineage, a growing appreciation for the home as a nest, a refuge, a place of identity re-gathering.

My question is, How will digital shifts in recent years transform our sense of the home or household? I’ll frame that in a few of ‘influences’ to consider and hope for comments.

1. Digital photography
Family/travel/etc. photos used to be stored in an heirloom box, a drawer or up on a wall in a frame. Today, most of them are on the family desktop, an iPod etc. ‘Space’ has become more digital. What does this say to how we store memories? The meaning of memory? The spatial anchoring of identity in the past? And the place it occupies in our present life spaces?

2. Web
Photos/postcards/articles/etc. used to be stored next to the prints or in scrapbooks. Now, interests, mementos and memories sit in a folder next to the digi pics. We have access to other people’s interests, mementos and memories through Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, geotagging etc. Is our sense of family growing? Becoming less physically bounded as it did when trains and steam ships empowered us to visit distant relatives? Or is the only thing growing our apetite for vicarious living?

3. Online shopping
Like the photos that generations past used for building cozy nests to raise their chicks in family trees reaching high into a known and secure past, the worms that are being plucked today are not necessarily from dewy lawns flown to but shipped without the need for flight. Like the Web and, to some extent, TV and radio before it, how will having access to more of ‘the world’ transform how we build the household nest in years to come?

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4. Family trees have been big business for years. Just check the Mormon Church’s website, Henry Louis Gates’ African American lives, and the phenomenon’s first big boom in the Victorian area. Now, are networks are about friends (Facebook), colleagues (LinkedIn) and such. Is inviting those who are far from us into the time & space of our homes (and being invited into theirs) doing something?

In show-dropping the Cleavers and worrying that I may never be able to tell my daughter to stop being such an Eddie Haskel (cause I know she may never get that reference), I guess my one big question is this:

If memory has been what John R. Gillis (in “Our Imagined Families: The Myths and Rituals We Live By”) has called “the dominant muse of our time,” will – and, if so, how and as what – will the digital space usher in as the next dominant muse?